The Impact of Unintended Consequences

Published May 1, 2016 by monika

When a problem arises, in our personal lives, in business or nationally, we seek ways to solve the problem. However, we often look at the problem in a very narrow way, and we forget to fully future-proof our ideas.

There are countless problems that arise each day within a business or an organisation; of profile, of staff politics, of finance, of accessibility, of design…. You’ll have your own list of issues you’ve recently tried to solve.

How often do you try to analyse what the consequences of your solution will be?

Let’s take a look at some examples of how things went wrong:

Case Study 1.

During British rule of colonial India, the British Government was concerned about the number of cobras in Delhi. So they offered a reward for every dead cobra. This worked brilliantly for a while, until the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and people started breeding cobras to kill and hand in, which was easier than capturing them in the wild. When this was realised, the bounty offered was withdrawn and people breeding the now worthless cobras released them back into the wild, which increased the cobra population. The problem was worse in the end than when they started.

Case Study 2.

When safety measures are introduced, such as seatbelts, or bike helmets to improve safety, people often take additional risks, because they feel safer than before. This is called Risk Compensation, and can result in more accidents taking place, rather than fewer. 

Case Study 3.

In 1980, the French Government offered rewards for damaged nets found along the Normandy Coast to reduce their environmental impact of nets being discarded when no longer useful. The result was that people vandalised their own nets when they were ready to get a new one, in order to collect the reward.

Case study 4

In 2008 Airbus made their engines quieter to improve passenger experience. Suddenly, every noise from the bathroom could be heard. They reintroduced the engine noise to the cabin.

Case study 5.

In America, many crossroads have traffic lights suspended over the intersection. Looking to decrease energy bills the local government switched the lightbulbs to LEDs, which worked fine in the summer. In the winter, however, the old fashioned lightbulbs had been defrosting the ice on the lights, making them easier to see. In the end the frost build up not only caused lots of accidents, it also increased the weight on the lights to such an extent that they came crashing down in the middle of the road.

Case study 6.

A company in a large office block decided toilet paper was too expensive. So replaced it with thinner paper. The company did not save money as intended. The actual impact was that people used far more of the thinner cheaper paper, and the toilets became blocked more regularly. The cost of calling plumbers and the inconvenience of having blocked toilets far outweighed the benefit of the toilet paper bill.

There are endless examples, from human behaviours, to medicinal side-effects, to environmental impact (petrol and lead, anyone?), that show if we focus on problem-solving too narrowly, we simply create more problems for ourselves.

We can’t account for every possible consequence of an idea, but we can become better at analysing some of the possibilities.